Margaret Edson’s Wit – An Audience Guide
|Madison Repertory Theatre’s production of Wit is supported in part by grants from the Shubert Foundation, the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional support from the Madison Community Foundation and the Overture Foundation, the Fan Fox & Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, and the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin. The Audience Guide is also supported in part by the Evjue Foundation, Alliant Energy Foundation, Lands’ End, Oscar Mayer/Kraft Foods, and Marshall Field’s.|
Feel free to print out all or some of this guide.
The play takes place over the course of about 12 months in a patient room of the University Hospital Comprehensive Cancer Center and in various places in the memory of Vivian Bearing.
- Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., 50, professor of English literature and noted authority on the 17th-century English poet John Donne, recently diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
- Harvey Kelekian, M.D., Chief of Medical Oncology at the hospital and lead investigator in a research trial of a new drug protocol to treat ovarian cancer.
- Jason Posner, M.D., 28, a clinical fellow under the supervision of Dr. Kelekian, interested in the study of cancer and the effect of the new drug protocol on treating tumors.
- Susie Monahan, R.N., Vivian’s primary care nurse on the oncology unit.
- E.M. Ashford, scholar, Professor Emerita of English Literature, and mentor-teacher to Vivian when she was a graduate student.
- Mr. Bearing, Vivian’s father.
- Four actors play multiple roles: Lab technicians, Clinical Fellows, students in a literature class, the hospital resuscitation Code Team.
Wit begins with Vivian talking to the audience: she is currently a patient in a major research hospital undergoing treatment for advanced ovarian cancer, and she knows the prognosis is not good. “The Faerie Queene this is not,” she advises, alluding to Edmund Spenser’s long poem, a tribute to the glory of Queen Elizabeth and her virtues. Prior to her hospitalization, she was Professor Bearing, teacher and scholar, specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Vivian takes the audience to various scenes in the past and present that illuminate her achievements in the world of scholarship and show what happens to her as she is treated with aggressive chemotherapy for eight months. What the audience sees is what Vivian herself perceives, and so reality is skewed according to her experience.
As Vivian undergoes a series of tests and procedures in the sterile hospital environment, she takes the audience back twenty years to an encounter with her graduate school professor, E.M. Ashford, after which she decides that nothing will stop her from becoming a top-notch scholar and that her chosen area of study will be one of the toughest, the poetry of John Donne. She also recalls the moment in her childhood with her father when she first fell in love with reading and with words. While in her hospital bed, Vivian recalls her life in the classroom, where she was known as a spell-binding lecturer on Donne and a demanding teacher of literature. Ironically, one of her doctors, Jason, is a former student and now a budding researcher in his own profession, having been inspired by Vivian’s uncompromising scholarship.
As the chemotherapy weakens Vivian and the doctors seem to take less and less notice of her pain and diminished capacity, she comes to rely on her nurse, Susie, who sees her suffering and treats her with kindness. She helps Vivian decide on a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate). As she dies, having learned much about life, Vivian is at peace with herself and her mortality.
“The thing I love most is teaching reading,” says the celebrated author of Wit. And she doesn’t mean reading in the intellectual way her character Dr. Vivian Bearing would analyze a poem. She quite literally means teaching reading to small children, which is her main occupation at present. She thinks of herself as a teacher, not a playwright, much less a playwright who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama with her first play. Although the critic John Simon stated in his review of Wit that Edson should be handed the Harvard English department, Edson is committed to her public school kindergarten classroom in downtown Atlanta. “It’s so corny, but if there’s a world that I want to see that has more justice in it, teaching is the way for me to bring that about,” she explains. “Reading and writing is power–the thing that gives you the most power in your whole life. I like being part of students acquiring that power. I like handing that power over.” The irony is not lost on Edson that she is the opposite of the character she created, a woman who sees the intellectual value in education, but less so its human aspects.
Edson, for a while, thought that she would earn a doctorate and pursue a career as an academic, much like Vivian Bearing. In 1991, Edson began a Masters program in literature at Georgetown University. While completing her degree, she volunteered at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church to tutor a boy from the Dominican Republic. By the time she came to write her thesis, she knew academe was not for her. Her thesis project, on the use of poetry to teach reading, concluded with an oral defense in which Edson performed a Queen Latifa rap number before her faculty review panel. Song and poetry are now integral to her teaching in the kindergarten classroom.
Edson’s path to playwriting could only be described as circuitous. Born in 1961, the middle of three children, Edson attended the private Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. where she grew up. Her mother, a medical social worker and her father, a newspaper columnist, encouraged her early theatrical leanings: Edson and her girlhood friend, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, of Seinfeld fame, performed plays in their basements and Edson was an active member of the theater program in high school. She discontinued her theater activities at Smith College, where she took part in the Scholars Program, and graduatedmagna cum laude in 1983 with a degree in Renaissance history. Unsure about a career, Edson spent a couple years going where life took her. In Iowa City, where her sister lived, she sold hot-dogs on the street during the day and at night waited tables at a bar frequented by hog farmers. She learned plain chanting and did manual labor in a French Dominican convent in Rome: “It was just something I felt like doing, so I did,” Edson comments.
In 1985 she took a job as a clerk on an oncology/AIDS unit at a research hospital in Washington. The unit was doing clinical trials of the drug AZT for AIDS patients and developing new protocols for the treatment of ovarian cancer. In her unobtrusive clerical position, Edson was able to watch the interactions of very sick patients with their caregivers, and to observe how patients coped with their illnesses and the often dehumanizing environment of a bustling hospital. She left the hospital after a year, but the experience stayed with her. She went on to intern at a philanthropic organization and do fundraising for a mental health agency, where she published her first piece of writing, a training manual on the psychosocial aspects of AIDS, Living with AIDS: Perspectives for Caregivers.
In 1991, just prior to her thirtieth birthday, Edson decided she needed to “get serious” about her life. She intended to go to graduate school in the fall, but before then, there was something she had to do. She needed to write a play about her year at the hospital. She was struck by the low survival rate of women with ovarian cancer and awed by their dignity and bravery in the face of death: “One was a science writer with three children, going through very aggressive treatment for ovarian cancer. I used to bring her a newspaper every day. Once, when we were in an elevator and I tried to tell her, in my 22-year-old way, that I admired her courage, and she said very calmly, ‘I don’t have much choice, do I?’”
It took a while for Edson to settle on an occupation for her main character. Edson knew she wanted her to be someone who moved from a position of authority and power to a position of dependency. She considered protagonists in medicine and law, but liked the idea of a highly articulate academic who discovers that her expertise in literary interpretation has little to do with the real-life trauma of cancer, which cannot be addressed through scholarly research or intellectual argument.
Edson had heard from former classmates that John Donne was one of the most difficult poets to read, so he seemed to be a perfect subject for her hard-edged protagonist’s research. Not ever having studied Donne, Edson spent countless hours sifting through centuries of criticism and commentary. She even found a model for her character E.M. Ashford in the real-life Oxford University professor, Helen Gardner, whose meticulous work on Donne’s Holy Sonnets made her a well-known authority among scholars. “Scholarly quibbles are very meaningful,” notes Edson, “A poem with a comma and a poem with a semi-colon are two different poems.” She found that to “anatomize” a poem down to its punctuation was similar in some respects to the way a medical researcher studies the anatomy of a human being. She was aided in her research and writing by a former mentor at Smith College, who not only coached Edson about the metaphysical poets, but was also, at the time, going through treatment for breast cancer.
From there, Edson claims, the play was clear in her mind. “To say it popped into my mind is the most accurate way of describing it. It just came to me.” At the time, Edson was working as a sales clerk in a Washington bike shop. When the play was finished, right before her graduate program was to start, she asked her family to read it aloud around her mother’s dining room table. Her high school friend, Derek Anson Jones, who would later direct several professional productions of Wit, played the role of Vivian Bearing. Her family gave her some suggestions, one of which was to trim the play. It was nearly three hours long. After some cutting, Edson began to send the play out to regional theaters in the hope of seeing it produced. She recalls that her file labeled “rejection” grew quite thick, but Edson had written the play she had wanted to write and, in the meantime, had discovered her vocation as a teacher, so the rejection letters had less sting.
In 1993, having plucked Edson’s manuscript from a pile of 1,000 new scripts, the South Coast Repertory Company in Costa Mesa, California gave the play a public reading, after which, in 1995, it was given a full production with even more cuts. It ran for seven weeks, got rave reviews and won numerous drama awards in the Los Angeles area. Then nothing. Edson kept getting the same negative response from producers: cast size too large, too much talk, too sad, too academic, too disease-of-month.
Her high school friend, Derek Anson Jones, who by now was working professionally in the theater, had been carrying the script around in his backpack showing it to producers he met and gaining an ally in the actor Kathleen Chalfant. Finally, in 1997, he convinced the artistic director of the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut to allow him to direct a production with Chalfant playing Vivian. Audiences loved it. A year later the production moved to the tiny Manhattan Class Company Theater in the Chelsea district of New York City, where it was a hit. In January 1999 the production, with Anson Jones directing and Chalfant in the lead, moved to the larger off-Broadway Union Square Theatre and became one of the hottest tickets in New York. Unfazed by success, Edson flew up from Atlanta for her openings only if she thought she could spare the days being out of her classroom.
The play swept nearly every drama award given for an off-Broadway play, including the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, The Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play, two Drama League awards and the Outer Critics’ Circle Award for Outstanding Play. Another honor came early in 1999 when Wit was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Chalfant took the lead in the London production in March of this year. The play has been produced around the country at regional theatres in Seattle, Ashland (Oregon), Cincinnati, Houston, Atlanta, Sarasota, and is now being produced in many other cities, as well as in translation abroad.
The New York Times critic called Wit, “the kind of theatrical experience of which legends are made.” Neither too intellectual or too maudlin, as some producers feared, the play strikes a chord with audiences. “Every once in a while a play comes along that bonds people together in extraordinary ways,” notes The Boston Globe reviewer. The play “isn’t a tearful lecture on how to die; it’s a dry-eyed lesson on how to live–with simplicity and kindness.” Another Boston critic concurs: “To say that Wit is about cancer is misleading; it is really about finding a balance between head and heart.” “This is a rich and resonant piece of writing,” asserts an Atlanta reviewer, “a play about language and ideas, philosophy and religion. It is at once funny, sad, tragic and life-affirming, complex and simple–yes, a metaphysical paradox.”
For current information on performances of Wit, see the Wit Homepage.
Director Leslie Swackhamer has been thinking about the meaning of the word “wit” and her own personal connection with Edson’s play. Prior to becoming a director, Swackhamer was a successful lawyer, living by her wits, that is, her intellect, to win cases in court. She sees parallels between her own life of the mind and the way in which Edson’s character Vivian lives a life of the mind so thoroughly that she has forgotten her soul. Even in her study of Donne, Vivian Bearing has lost the true “soul” of Donne’s poetry, which addresses the nature of the human soul with heartfelt questioning. Swackhamer left law and finds theater to be a profession where she can employ her intelligence and passion.
Swackhamer sees Edson’s play as examining the life of a woman who is not whole, someone who has isolated herself in an ivory tower of intellect and is unable to respond with feeling to others. In one of Donne’s meditational essays, written while he was quite ill, the poet reflects on the tolling of funeral bells he can hear from his sickbed. He writes,
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away to the Sea, Europe is the lesse… any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for Thee.
According to Swackhamer, Vivian has isolated herself from other people and hidden her emotions behind her erudition. In her sickbed, with the figurative bell tolling for her, she is forced to review her connections to humanity. The play, Swackhamer says, is Vivian’s “journey to grace” in which her natural curiosity and keen mind drive her to become introspective. When Vivian is “plunged into a world not her own and finds the maze of a hospital completely foreign to her experience,” Swackhamer explains, she is forced to confront her own shortcomings, particularly the fact that she is not a very likeable person.
Rather than depict scenes realistically, Swackhamer is planning a “highly theatrical” production, one that allows the audience to see the world through Vivian’s eyes, that is, to experience her hospital ordeal as she experiences it. The setting will be spare, but the production will make inventive use of light and sound to capture Vivian’s perspective.
If Wit is Vivian Bearing’s spiritual journey to a fuller and more humane understanding of life than she has had in the past, her self-awareness comes at great expense: Vivian must take another journey, too: passing from life into death as her body deteriorates from the effects of cancer and the chemotherapy she receives.
The playwright explains her purpose in creating a character, who, at first, seems to be unsympathetic. “I wanted to talk about a person’s relationship with grace–meaning the flow of harmony in and out of her life, her relationship with God, and her growing awareness of her own self as a person with a soul and the capacity for love. And the best way to talk about that was to show a person who had none of these attributes and show her gradually coming into them.” The hospital environment is so foreign to Vivian that she loses her bearing. As a patient, she loses the control she once had in her classroom and, in the presence of her doctors, she is no longer the authority in the field. Now, as one more sick person on the doctors’ grand rounds, Vivian quips, “Once I did the teaching, now I am taught.” Being ill and in the hospital make her weak and vulnerable. The playwright shows her bearing up to the tough physical regimen of chemotherapy, but unable to express the emotional turmoil it causes. Intellect has been Vivian’s strength and her limitation.
Vivian has always lived a life of the mind. Trained to be a scholar and teacher, she values intellect and ideas. On being informed that she has advanced ovarian cancer and that the treatment will be difficult to endure, she replies cavalierly: “It appears to be a matter, as the saying goes, of life and death. I know all about life and death. I am, after all, a scholar of Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore mortality. . .” In truth, Vivian knows little about life or death and it is only when she confronts life at its most difficult does she come to understand that intellect is only one aspect of being human. Vivian possess wit: she is smart, wry, ironic, quick and probing with ideas, and capable of keen perception; however, her wisdom that is useful in her profession is insufficient when she must cope with her illness. Only when terminal cancer forces her to look at her own life, does she truly understand Donne’s fears and spiritual struggle.
As she grows weaker and closer to dying, Vivian comes to rely on her nurse, Susie, who sees Vivian’s suffering and fear, and who responds with empathy and care and, literally, a human touch. Similarly, Vivian’s imposing mentor, E.M. Ashford, rather than read Donne to Vivian, climbs into bed beside her and reads a simple child’s story that brings soothing comfort. When Vivian sees that her death is near, she realizes the significance of these actions: “Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. . . . Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out.” Once Vivian comes to this understanding of compassion, she is, as Edson, says, redeemed, and is able to die peacefully. In the play’s striking final image, Edson melds Donne’s ideas with the sight of Vivian, as it were, baring her soul.
Donne’s Holy Sonnet entitled “This is my Playes Last Scene” describes the brief moment of death when the soul leaves the body:
This is my playes last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimages last mile; and my race
Idly, yet quickly runne, hath this last pace,
My spans last inch, my minutes last point
And gluttonous death, will instantly unjoynt
My body, and soule, and I shall sleepe a space,
But my’ever-waking part shall see that face,
Whose feare already shakes my every joynt:
Then, as my soule, to’heaven her first seate, takes flight,
And earth-borne body, in the earth shall dwell,
So, fall my sinnes, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would presse me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evill,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh and devill.
(From John Donne: The Divine Poems, edited by Helen Gardner, 1952)
Edson draws a connection between Vivian Bearing and the doctor, Jason Posner. Young Jason, prepped for research and scholarship by Vivian herself–he took her class on the metaphysical poets–possesses many of the same traits as Vivian. He is smart, ambitious, dedicated to the complexities of his medical research, and inept at human relations. He must be reminded of appropriate bedside manner, otherwise, he would see only a sick body and not the person lying in the bed. He’s fascinated with cancer and its complex cellular mechanisms, but patients and their messy emotions are something of an annoyance, he finds. Even care-giving nurses are problematic: “The clinicians are such troglodytes. So smarmy. Like we have to hold hands to discuss creatinine clearance. Just cut the crap, I say.” His automatic, inattentive salutation to patients, “How are you feeling today,” is both humorous and distressing. Like Professor Bearing, who could be overbearing with her students, Jason prefers research to “the part with the human beings.”
Edson maintains that she did not intend for doctors to be targets in her play. In fact, she states that “the researchers are not guilty of any cruelty that Vivian is not guilty of. They are completely equal in my mind.” The point is that both Vivian and Jason are arrogant and unfeeling, much to their own detriment. Vivian is forced to temper her arrogance when illness becomes agony. Jason’s arrogance causes him to make a serious blunder when he tries to resuscitate Vivian despite her “do not resuscitate” orders. In her juxtaposition of characters, Edson makes her point. “I’m not saying that smart is bad,” Edson stresses, “Smart is not bad–but kind is good.”
Having once worked in a research hospital, Edson was able to use some of the dilemmas of medical research to enhance her central theme. Her protagonist is part of a clinical trial for a new drug regimen to fight ovarian cancer. She is not merely a sick patient, but a subject of research for the doctors who attend her, which gives them an inherent conflict of interest. As physicians, they must attend to Vivian in a way that is beneficial to her; they must “do no harm,” as their Hippocratic oath warns. As researchers, Jason and Dr. Kelekian seek to benefit medical progress, to gain new knowledge about how the drugs could be used to treat other women with ovarian cancer. They urge Vivian not to compromise their study, that is, to endure the “full dose” of chemotherapy. They walk the ethical line between taking risks with Vivian’s well-being and acquiring knowledge that might benefit others. They cross the ethical line when Vivian becomes so weak that she can no longer tolerate the full dose, and, at her death, when Jason tries to resuscitate her. “She’s Research!” he yells when Susie tries to stop the resuscitation Code Team. Susie once told Vivian that doctors “like to save lives,” but implies that they are not always as attentive to issues of quality of life as they are to life-preserving measures.
Ironically, Vivian is sympathetic to the researchers. As a researcher herself, she sees the value in attacking “an intractable mental puzzle” and gaining further knowledge about cancer, even if she is the subject of study. “What is the alternative?” she asks, “Ignorance? Ignorance may be . . . bliss; but it is not a very noble goal.” By taking the full chemotherapy treatment, Vivian becomes more data for Jason’s file, a topic for a paper in a medical journal. Terminally ill at the end of her treatment, Vivian has become more cynical: “What we have come to think of as me, is, in fact, just a the specimen jar . . .” By nature supportive of the goals of research, she thinks differently when she feels its dehumanizing effect on her. And, in the end, she derives no benefit, no extended quality of life from having undergone the full course of the new drugs.
Vivian also comes to see that the study of literature, which she so prized for itself, has little meaning when devoid of human connections. Rather than administering the “full dose” of Donne to her students, she might have taken time to nurture their minds and to attend to them as individuals and not vessels to be filled with knowledge.
The sonnet was a fashionable poetic form in the early 17th Century, consisting of 14 lines of a certain meter and rhyme scheme. Donne used the Italian sonnet schema (Shakespeare wrote in the English sonnet form), in which the sonnet is divided into an octave of eight lines with its own rhyme scheme and a concluding sestet of six lines with a different rhyme scheme. More about the sonnet form and examples of sonnets, including Donne’s, may be found at Sonnet Central
John Donne is frequently referred to as the dominant figure of a school of 17th century English writers known as the metaphysical poets. This label is misleading in that the poets did not think of themselves as belonging to any school, nor did they write for or with one another. They are linked by their style, that is, their use of wit, rather than any thematic ideology. Scholar Louis Marz describes wit as “intellect, reason, powerful mental capacity, cleverness, ingenuity, intellectual quickness, inventive and constructive ability, a talent for uttering brilliant things, the power of amusing surprise.” George Herbert (1593-1633) and Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) are two other well-known writers of this era. See theLuminarium for others.
For Donne and other poets, the word “metaphysical” implies a highly intellectual approach to poetry. During the Renaissance, the term “wit” referred to intelligence or wisdom. As applied to the metaphysical poets, it has the connotation of intellectual and verbal ingenuity. “Donne’s wit,” according to professor Achsah Guibbory, “involves surprise, a desire to startle readers, to make them look at things in a new, unconventional way,” In poetic terms, wit was applied toward the development of a metaphysical conceit–an insightful use of analogy, metaphor or inventive joining of dissimilar images to make a point in a poem. Of this style, Helen Gardner writes that it is “close-packed and dense with meaning, something to be ‘chewed and digested,’ which will not give up its secrets on first reading.” An early critic disparaged Donne’s work, calling it “nice speculations of philosophy.” Vivian Bearing, alluding to the difficulty of Donne’s work due to his “unlikely flights of imagination,” says, “Donne’s wit is . . . a way to see how good you really are.” For more about the metaphysical poets, go to the English literature section of Voice of the Shuttle.
In the Holy Sonnets, which are a part of series called Divine Poems, Donne struggles with his Christian faith. In “The Triple Foole” he writes:
I thought, if I could draw my paines,
Through Rimes vexation, I should them allay,
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For, he tames it, that fetters it in verse.
Gardner writes, “The image of a soul in meditation which the Holy Sonnets present is an image of a soul working out its salvation in fear and trembling.” Biographer R.C. Bald concurs. He suggests that Donne’s sonnets were the ruminations of a man in spiritual crisis, the product of his innate melancholy temperament, his reduced circumstances and lack of direction in his professional life. The Donne of the Holy Sonnets wrestles with questions about faith, God’s mercy and judgment, human mortality and the immortality of the soul, sin, damnation, absolution and salvation. Donne expresses despair about his own salvation, and reveals his fear of death. The Holy Sonnets are the product of a doubter, one who has not yet found inner peace. He queries God, “But who am I, that dare dispute with thee?” After fifteen years of preaching and by the end of his life, “he discerned a divine purpose directing it. He felt that God had used him as an instrument of his power and grace, and had brought him to a safe haven,” according to Bald. With the assurance of salvation, came his understanding that life was a preparation for life-everlasting, and that death was not something to be feared.
Some of the scholarship on Donne focuses on when he wrote the Holy Sonnets and how Jack Donne, man-of-the-world, became Dr. Donne, dedicated servant of the church. Since the spiritual anguish and skepticism expressed in the Holy Sonnets does not match the passionate devotion of his sermons and later writings, it is now supposed that the sonnets were written early, probably between 1607-1610. None were published during Donne’s life and they were known only by a small circle. As was the custom, Donne copied out his poems to give to friends, who, in turn, copied them and passed them along. No manuscripts in Donne’s hand exist today: scholars have only numerous, differing versions transcribed by others to work with. This is why, in Wit, E.M. Ashford chides young Vivian on her use of an inauthentic version of Donne’s sonnet which uses punctuation in a way that alters Donne’s meaning, according to Ashford, who relies on the true-life Donne scholar, Helen Gardner. Gardner studied the many extant manuscript versions and attempted to establish which ones are closest to what Donne actually wrote and when he wrote them.
It takes the power of his poetic imagination for Donne to defeat death, whom he addresses directly in this Holy Sonnet:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore Death, nor yet canst thou kill mee;
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die.
(From John Donne: The Divine Poems, edited by Helen Gardner, 1952)
Vivian Bearing cannot vanquish death. But when her death comes, she seems to know that she will “wake eternally” in God’s grace. Prior to her illness, Vivian could bring her razor-sharp mind to bear on the poem’s formal elements–scansion, punctuation, and use of poetic devices. At the end of her life, having learned the meaning of compassion, she is, as Edson puts it, “redeemed.” Donne’s words now reverberate in her heart. In asking for the “do not resuscitate” code, Vivian expresses a willingness to die, thus depriving Death of its mightiness.
1572 Donne is born in London to Roman Catholic parents, one of six (or possibly more) children. On his mother’s side, he is related to Sir Thomas More, who served Henry VIII; two of his uncles are Jesuits. In Elizabethan England, anti-Catholic sentiment was high and Catholics were subject to harassment.
1584-1591 Donne is sent to study at Oxford University at age 12 and then, possibly, studied further at Cambridge; however, he earned no degree, because, as a Catholic, he was ineligible to take the oath of allegiance to Queen Elizabeth.
1591 – 1597 Admitted as a law student to Lincoln’s Inn, Donne, on his own, makes a comprehensive study of theology, religions and science. In 1593, his brother Henry dies in prison, having been arrested for sheltering a priest. Donne joins two extended expeditions, first with the Earl of Essex and then with Sir Walter Raleigh, sailing to Spain and Portugal. He writes poems on these adventures, as well as sensual poems about love.
1598 Ambitious to advance in society, Donne finds employment as legal secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal in Queen Elizabeth’s court. It is assumed that Donne now accepts the tenets of the Church of England, as he becomes a favorite among the nobility of Egerton’s circle and members of the queen’s court. He is intelligent, charming and has great expectations.
1601 – 1609 In December 1601, Donne secretly marries Egerton’s niece, 16-year-old Anne More. In February 1602, when the marriage is revealed, Donne is dismissed from Egerton’s house and imprisoned for over a month. By April, the marriage is properly acknowledged, but Donne is disgraced and outcast. He punned to a friend: “John Donne Anne Donne, Undone.”
For the next ten years, the couple, by all accounts happily married, live in poverty, supported by relatives and patrons, such as the Countess of Bedford (mentioned in Edson’s play). Donne regularly sends his handwritten poetry to friends, who copy it and send it on to other admirers. It is supposed that he composes some of his Holy Sonnets during these years when he is despondent about supporting his family and in spiritual crisis. He continues his theological studies and writes about some of the religious controversies of the day, but refuses King James I’s recommendation to be ordained and enter the church.
1610 – 1614 Although he is granted an honorary Masters degree from Oxford University in 1610, King James I conveys to Donne that no state appointments will be given to him, as Donne hoped for. Donne finds employment with Sir Robert Drury and accompanies him on his European travels.
1615 After the deaths of four children, one stillborn, and with measured consideration of his future, Donne takes Holy Orders and becomes an Anglican priest, allowing him to be appointed a Royal Chaplain and giving him employment to support his family. At King James’s command, and against the wishes of Cambridge University, Donne is granted an honorary Doctor of Divinity, which enables him to secure further advancement.
1617 Donne’s wife Anne, age 33, dies after giving birth to her twelfth child, a stillborn infant. Donne has become a noted preacher for his erudite mind and fiery eloquence, and is often called upon to preach by members of the king’s court.
1621 – 1631 Donne rises further in Church hierarchy, becoming Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London at an installation in November of 1621. During an extended illness in 1623, Donne writes his series of meditations (essays) comparing physical illness to spiritual affliction, entitled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. Passionate and visionary, he preaches and ministers for he next ten years with an assurance quite unlike the anxious questioning expressed in his earlier Holy Sonnets. Donne dies at age 59 in March, 1631 after a long wasting illness. Some 160 of his sermons were preserved. Thomas Carew, another poet, elegized his contemporary:
Here lies the King, that rul’d as hee thought fit
The universall Monarchy of wit.
1633 Donne’s eldest son gathers many of the manuscripts of Donne’s poems that had been passed from hand to hand for thirty years and publishes them in one volume.
R.C. Bald, John Donne: A Life, 1970.
Thomas N. Corns, ed., The Cambridge Companion to English Poetry: Donne to Marvell, 1993
Helen Gardner, John Donne: The Divine Poems, 1952, rev. ed. 1978.
Louis Martz, ed., English Seventeenth-Century Verse, vol. I, 1970.
An extensive source of information on John Donne, his life, works, poetry (including texts of the Holy Sonnets) and critical response may be found at the Luminarium under 17th Century literature. Look here for a view of Donne’s old St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Links to sites on palliative medicine and care of the terminally ill may be found at theHospice Web
Audience Guide © August 21, 2000, Madison Repertory Theatre
This guide was written by Carol Cohen, who holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Associate Academic Dean at Edgewood College in Madison, where she also teaches drama.